Ghost Stories at the Lyric: The Perfect Synthesis of Stage and Screen
A year after Ghost Stories hit cinemas, James Witherspoon heads to where it all began to see what the fuss is all about.
It’s interesting to see Ghost Stories so soon after reviewing Berberian Sound Studio. Where the latter was a screen to stage transfer, the former began as a play almost ten years ago, transitioned into a spectacular horror flick last year, and has returned to its birthplace at the Lyric Hammersmith. Unlike Sound Studio, as well, Ghost Stories is marketed as an out-and-out go-for-broke horror experience, with guests having to accept warnings and age restrictions before even being able to book a ticket.
The experience really starts walking into the Lyric. The lights are down, and we have to move through a corridor with police tape hanging from the ceiling to the main auditorium. Mysterious numbers have been chalked all over the walls, lanterns hang from the seats and ceiling, and the stage literally bursts forward into the audience, the edges of the set streaming plastic wrap and police tape through the air to the Grand Circle. The ‘safety curtain’ exudes evil. The lights periodically flicker as spooky ambient filters through an elaborate network of speakers positioned throughout the theatre. This is a show that knows how to make an entrance.
When it finally begins, we’re greeted by Simon Lipkin’s Professor Goodman, delivering a lecture on parapsychology, and the reasons why we like to believe in ghosts. After about 15 minutes of this (which is genuinely entertaining, a little creepy, and has some gasp-out-loud moments), we launch into what could be called the meat of the show: the only three ‘cases’ that Goodman has taken on and hasn’t been able to explain.
The first follows aging night watchman Tony Matthews (Garry Cooper), who has a paranormal experience in a warehouse at 4am; the second concerns Simon Rifkind (Preston Nyman), a teenager who encounters a horrifying creature whilst driving in a dark forest; and the third focuses on Mike Priddle (Richard Sutton) as a wealthy investment banker who witnesses some spooky goings-on when expecting a child. As these stories progress, it becomes clearer and clearer how they fit together, and that something else is going on – the less said about that the better, but if my synopsis sounds like Ghost Stories is going to be a disparate jumble, think again.
What’s really surprising (or perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising) is how precisely all this aligns with the film. The script is practically identical (the film exchanges the ‘lecture’ conceit for a television show), the sets mirror each other (in particular, the first segment in the warehouse is an almost pitch perfect recreation), and even the scares are timed to the exact moments where something pops out onto the screen. The timing is so exact that I was able to go ‘aaand now…’ directly before some climactic jump.
I also couldn’t shake the idea that the cast were all imitating their film version counterparts. Lipkin seems to be imitating Nyman to a T; Preston Nyman is clearly, undoubtedly imitating Alex Lawther (whose performances always dial down to the same nervy stereotype); I’m practically certain Richard Sutton is doing his best impression of Martin Freeman – their mannerisms are so similar; and Garry Cooper, although the least obvious of the bunch, appears to be doing a Paul Whitehouse. Is this a problem? I’m not so sure. On one hand, it doesn’t really detract from the enjoyment of the show – but on the other, it ensures that none of the cast are really convincing as people. Preston Nyman, in particular, gives such an exaggerated, ridiculous slant on Simon Rifkind that my friend actually laughed at his performance.
But what’s truly remarkable about this show is that none of that really matters, because it feels far more like a movie than a piece of theatre. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the audio-visual aspects of the production come to the fore as the major drivers of the Ghost Stories experience. I found myself leaning forward and forgetting that this was a live performance at all – a peculiar feeling that I haven’t felt before in the theatre. This alone is a compelling reason to see the show.
Jon Bausor’s design feels incredibly intricate and expensive – complemented by James Farncombe’s lighting, Scott Penrose’s special effects and Nick Manning’s sound, this is a piece of work that looks like a truly blockbuster, go-for-broke show. In the post-play Q&A, Nyman told us all that it ‘looks high-tech… but it’s actually just Sellotape and string’ – if that is so, major congratulations are due to a piece of work which is one of the best looking I’ve ever seen. The ways in which we’re made to think that characters are walking through a warehouse, or driving miles down deserted roads, are absolutely ingenious. To be able to watch the film, and then see the show, and feel that the show was able to achieve the same level of visual effect as the film is truly something special and to be applauded.
It helps that the script is deliciously funny. Again, far more cinematic than theatrical. Dyson and Nyman play rather unsubtly on British class and race conflicts, as well as the fear of their characters (and the audience) brilliantly, creating an environment that often elicits laughs (far more than it elicits scares), but laughs that don’t dilute the overall atmosphere of foreboding that carries the production.
The million-dollar question: is it scary? It’s certainly very tense, and there are some ‘oh shit’ climactic moments, but unless you count ‘jumping in your seat 3 or 4 times’ over the course of 80 minutes a vision of terror, you’ll probably be able to handle it. What’s really interesting for me is to hear critics calling the play-based scares twice as effective as those in the film, when I personally found the film terrifying at several points, but was able to handle this production without feeling like I needed to shield my eyes – although my heart rate did rise considerably. Perhaps it’s because cinema represents, at least in some sense, limitless possibility. Although the theatre is known for being impactful – when someone says fuck in a play, it can be shocking, quite apart from the situation on film – it has fixed boundaries. There are only certain things Nyman and Dyson can do to scare me: loud noises, flashing lights, the sudden appearance of a character – and they do them well. But on the screen, a director can feasibly do anything – with the magic of special effects make anything appear from anywhere at any point – which is what creates such an intense sense of anticipation.
Still, it could just be me. The chorus of communal screaming in the theatre started from the get go and didn’t let up until the curtain call, so there’s always that. As a horror obsessive, I’m probably not the best person to ask ‘Is this scary?’ And even if you’re not terrified, it’s a thrilling, unique piece of blockbuster entertainment that defies the laws of theatre with its minimal cast and maximal visual impact. Ghost Stories probably won’t scar you for life, or even for the week. It probably won’t make you sleep with the lights on, and whilst you’re watching it you’re hardly going to be in abject terror. But it’s the most perfect synthesis of stage and screen that I’ve experienced yet, and to see it in the Lyric, where this whole thing began, is something special.
Ghost Stories is at the Lyric Hammersmith until May 18.